It’s 2015, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been dead for nearly fifty years, and it’s only natural, if sad, that his work and message have become appropriated by the engines of consumerism, capitalism, complacency and historical revisionism. Time passes, people forget, old people die, new ones arrive on the scene. MLK jr was twenty or thirty years gone before today’s hipsters were even born. Heck, even Steve Jobs, who appropriated MLK’s image to sell Apple consumer electronics, is fast fading into the rear view mirror. Steve who? And so Martin Luther King jr becomes a literal figure head, and like the head on a penny in circulation for fifty years, he becomes tiny and smooth.
But the smoothing out of M.L. King is not only a natural consequence of time. It’s a consequence of the way his story has been told by Powers that Be. In the the consensus narrative, King was a man to whom history gave a great challenge, in the form of the Montgomery bus boycott launched by Rosa Parks’ famous decision to not relocate to the back of the bus, and who rose to that challenge and went on to become a great and transformative leader, and true and uniquely American hero, and ultimately a martyr.
That story is fine, so far as it goes. But what it leaves out is the history of black people in America organizing and working courageously to advance their own interests, to secure rights or at least their physical security, during the entire period from the end of the Civil War until 1955. And thus Rosa Parks becomes a naive simple seamstress unaware of what she was doing, and King becomes a Moses figure, a man capable of reaching out to all Americans, a man whose eloquence and courage could open the eyes of (white) people of goodwill who somehow were ignorant of the realities of the racial divide in America until Boston University-educated Dr. King brought it to their attention. Dr. King is sui generis, one of a kind, who launched the whole Civil Rights Movement.
What this gets wrong is that Rosa Parks and the Montgomery boycott did not just come out of nowhere; their success and national reverberations, largely attributed to Dr. King, would not have been possible without the groundwork done by black organizations, most significantly the NAACP. That boycott was 56 years in the making, at least, and it took root because of networks established over decades by thousands of brave people, a fair number of whom died in the cause. The “King as Moses” theory thus allows people conveniently ignore the true history of the Jim Crow south and the far from benign north. King was a great man and it is entirely fitting that we have a national holiday in his honor. But we can honor his legacy not by repeating stock phrases about content of character, but by actually learning a little history. If we want to complete Dr. King’s work, a cliche to which virtually every American claims to embrace, we can only do it by looking at our situation honestly, and that means learning our own history, even the unpleasant parts. I highly recommend Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice, a history of the NAACP, as a good place to start. You can find my review of it here.
Separating Dr. King from history, making him a saint and “hero”, only trivializes and renders impotent his true message. He deserves better than that. We owe ourselves more than that.